“Freshman year, I spent a lot of time in the triangle between my dorm room, Usdan, and the library,” said Ari Ebstein ’16. “When you’re in that loop, it all feels very significant, [but] what does my paper on popular culture and social justice really mean when people are homeless and sleeping on the street in Middletown?”
Ebstein and Bulelani “Jills” Jili ’16 began thinking about how to make social change a more constant part of their lives while they were living in 200 Church last year.
In the spring, they worked together to form Middletown Potluck with the goal of strengthening ties between Wesleyan students and Middletown residents. The potlucks have been held in partnership with the Green Street Arts Center and aim to facilitate fruitful conversations about social justice over a shared meal.
“Wesleyan students are a tad aloof, a bit in our own world,” Jili said. “When you converse, [you might hear], ‘I’m going into Middletown.’ You are in Middletown.”
Evan Bieder ’15 agrees that Wesleyan students tend to detach themselves from the greater community. He has tried to combat this issue through volunteering with Middletown Potluck, Food Not Bombs, and Middletown Urban Gardens.
“I think a lot of Wesleyan students can get stuck in the Wesleyan bubble and only really experience Middletown on Main Street through the restaurants and frozen yogurt and things like that,” Bieder said. “I am trying to make a bigger effort to interact with the town I am living in for four years.”
Efforts to strengthen the relationship between Wesleyan and Middletown have also been increasing on an institutional level. For example, this September, the University hosted its inaugural celebration of Middletown Day, which brought members of the Middletown community to the Wesleyan campus for an afternoon of festivities.
It is up for debate, however, whether or not these efforts have been successful at reducing town-gown tensions.
“When people talk about tension, we talk about the idea that we have this very wealthy, privileged institution, literally on an elevated landscape, that employs a lot of the greater community as kind of a service class, sometimes in serviceable working conditions and sometimes not, and often [Wesleyan] is criticized for not engaging in more partnership with the community,” Ebstein said. “I think a lot of the activism Wesleyan touts about itself and [which] students engage in is of a paternalistic nature, such as tutoring or food rescue. These things are important, and I’m not trying to criticize these things unilaterally, but they do come from a hierarchical position of Wesleyan as this bastion of privilege and abundance.”
Ebstein and Jili said they are making an effort to go about social activism in less paternalistic and hierarchical ways and to involve the Middletown community as much as possible in the decision-making process. In fact, it was Middletown resident Nur Moebius who came up with the idea of having a potluck while talking to Ebstein at a celebratory barbeque for Middletown Urban Gardens.
Moebius was one of three speakers at the Middletown Potluck’s first event, “The Middletown Experience,” along with Arthur Moore, a ninth grade student with an interest in spoken word, and Jalen Alexander ’14, coordinator for the Traverse Square tutoring program.
“Middletown Potluck is unique in that its focus is social,” Jili said. “We are a group of equals trying to come [together] to make a change.”
The Halloween Bash, held at Green Street Arts Center on Oct. 27 and co-sponsored by Middletown Potluck and Green Street, was originally suggested by Middletown resident and parent Beverly Morris. More than 50 children came to the event, and 7 Wesleyan students helped out with the various activities on the schedule, including finger painting and drawing, a freeze dance game, and a chocolate mud-pie station that introduced kids to the idea of composting. One highlight of the night was the haunted house, decorated by After School Supervisor at Green Street Cookie Quiñones.
“We are trying to see if next year we can make it even bigger,” Quiñones said. “We want to hear the voices of the community, and we will try our best to make [what they want] happen.”
Middletown parent Marilyn Dunkley attended the Halloween event with her kids and plans to attend Middletown Potluck’s next event on Saturday, Nov. 16, from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at First Church, 190 Court St. This potluck will be in collaboration with St. Vincent de Paul’s Amazing Grace Food Pantry and will feature speeches from several formerly or currently homeless people as a way to fuel a discussion on hunger and homelessness in the Middletown community.
“We were hit by the economy and layoffs,” Dunkley said. “I have six kids and we go to Amazing Grace [Food Pantry] to get assistance. Middletown is very unique; we are all connected and [people are] willing to help out whenever you need something.”
Although Green Street-affiliated families made up the largest portion of “Halloween Bash” attendees, an eclectic mix of people typically attends Middletown Potluck events. Attendees include homeless people from the Eddy Shelter, Wesleyan students, an old-school Marxist named Vick, Green Street administrators, and Middlesex Community College students. Lately, Ebstein and Jili have been reaching out to more faith-based communities and are also trying to encourage more professors to attend and to contribute food to the potluck.
“One problem is that we are feeding more of a food-insecure population… [and it could be] offensive to expect a resident of the Eddy shelter to bring food, so we’ve been dimming the potluck aspect,” Ebstein said.
So far, Wesleyan students have cooked most of the meals, with Middletown residents contributing several dishes and Mike’s Deli providing sandwiches on occasion. Ebstein hopes to get more restaurants to agree to donate food, one of many goals he has for the future of Middletown Potluck.
“I would like to get involved in a local issue of social justice, and use the community facilitated by Middletown Potluck to help out in a significant way in providing partial solutions to issues pertaining to social justice,” Ebstein said. “Whether that is homeless[ness], food insecurity, or educational inequity, they are all part of the same soup.”